Scheduling tough opponents to prepare his team for postseason play has been a hallmark of CSU volleyball head coach Tom Hilbertâ€™s tenure, and this season is no different.
The Rams opened the season with four games in four days on the road, going 3-1 in that span. They now return home to Moby Arena for the first time tonight, with No. 5 Nebraska waiting for them.
â€œWe want to have a run in the NCAA tournament and we want to win our conference and you best prepare yourself for that by playing good competition,â€ Hilbert said. â€œThere are no easy teams on our non-conference schedule and thatâ€™s by design.â€
Hilbert primarily picks out opponents for the non-conference schedule, but does not have complete control over it.
â€œIt is me, but some things are in play. Number one, itâ€™s whoâ€™s willing to come here,â€ he said. â€œAnd number two, we have to return. That Arkansas tournament was a return from two years ago. We donâ€™t get to pick an Arkansas tournament.â€
The primary benefit of playing so many good teams so early, Hilbert said, is to see athleticism and speed at a very high level so they are used to it by the time the conference schedule starts later in September.
â€œPlaying big, physical teams like us is more fun and competitive,â€ senior opposite hitter Kaetlyn Steffan said. â€œThey point out our flaws and what we need to work on.â€
With all of CSUâ€™s relative inexperience, the tough schedule provides a fast track to becoming a better team. Redshirt freshman setter Deedra Foss is one of several Rams players who has quickly had to learn to play well for the team to be successful
â€œIt makes us better right away and it challenges us,â€ Foss said. â€œRather than going out and playing easy games we know weâ€™re going to win, we have to step up our game and play better.â€
Hilbert said that there arenâ€™t any detriments to playing so many good teams in a row, but players said that having so many games back-to-back wore on them physically. The Rams returned home Tuesday after an extended road trip, which began Thursday when they left for the Arkansas invitational.
â€œJust coming back home I think all of our bodies are trying to catch up and recover,â€ Steffan said.
So far the experience of a tough schedule has been a positive one for the Rams.
â€œWe learned the importance of tempo and having good tempo and passing,â€ Foss said. The CSU offense functions better when all of the passes are on time and accurate, because it allows them to attack sooner, sometimes before the opposing block has a chance to set up.
â€œWeâ€™re doing things well, weâ€™re going to have to learn from last Friday and Saturday, and next weekend weâ€™ve got three more good teams coming in here, thereâ€™s no rest for this crew,â€ Hilbert said. â€œBy the time we hit Mountain West play weâ€™ll know what itâ€™s like to play good teams.â€
Volleyball beat reporter Kyle Grabowski can be reached at email@example.com.
CSU volleyballâ€™s upcoming non-conference opponents:
9/2: #5 Nebraska
9/8: Nova KBM Maribor
(Slovenian professional team)
9/9: Wichita State
9/10: Northern Colorado
10/6: Seattle University
11/26: New Mexico State